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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Gospel music.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: That sound, common in the African American church, helped create the foundation for rock and roll, and rhythm and blues. For some, it's a testament of faith. To others, it's an important element of culture. Sam Cooke, Al Green, Aretha Franklin - each began by singing gospel music.

Anthony Heilbut has captured some of gospel's greatest moments and biggest stars in a new DVD and CD collection called "How Sweet It Was: The Sights and Sounds of Gospel's Golden Age." Anthony Heilbut joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ANTHONY HEILBUT (Gospel music producer, "How Sweet it Was"): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: We're listening now to The Soul Stirrers, and this was a group that Sam Cooke actually led for a time. And I'm detecting a bit of a rock groove in this particular number. Was that always a part of their style?

Mr. HEILBUT: I think it may be the other way around. Sam Cooke took into soul music, which he practically invented himself, the sound and the harmonies of The Soul Stirrers. And the guitars, Roy Crain, who was one of the few participants on this packet still living, invented some of those harmonies and some of those grooves. The lead singer, Paul Foster, who was Sam Cooke's co-lead - in fact Paul had been in the group before Sam joined it.

HANSEN: So Sam Cooke actually moved the sacred style into a more secular arena?

Mr. HEILBUT: Absolutely.

HANSEN: Yeah. I have to talk about another performer, a woman, if we're going to talk about sacred and secular - Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It looks like she's on a TV show that seems to be a gospel music showcase. What can you tell us about that?

Mr. HEILBUT: This was "TV Gospel Time," a series from the early and mid-'60s, one of only two or three that featured gospel at that time, and in the nick of time, because the mid and late-'60s were pretty much the end to the era of traditional gospel. So, fortunately, many of the greatest stars appeared on this particular series. And that was a major source of most of these clips.

(Soundbite of "Up Above My Head")

HANSEN: Sister Rosetta Tharpe is performing "Up Above My Head." Why is she often considered the original female rocker?

Mr. HEILBUT: Because of her guitar style. And as somebody joked, she was sidewinding long before Pete Townshend was even conceived.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Yes, she does whip that arm around when she's playing her guitar.

Mr. HEILBUT: She was a great showman. And I learned only after her death, sadly, and her death occurred the day I was supposed to have produced her comeback record, that she was the favorite singer of people like Johnny Cash. She had an immense influence on country rockers like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. And so, people often thought that Chuck Berry was combining, conflating country and blues, but in fact we know that Rosetta had come up with the sound almost 20 years earlier.

HANSEN: I want to ask you about a song that Marion Williams performs.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: She's singing about if you've got diabetes, if you've got kidney disease, if you've got this or that, you know put your life in the hands of the Savior and he will cure all your ills. I remember the time when Malcolm X was quite prevalent and civil rights were really front page news. And I remember one of the things being said that somehow the older generations were putting so much faith in their God and church that there was almost a disinclination to get involved with politics and the civil rights movement at the time. Did you ever hear that, and do you think it's true?

Mr. HEILBUT: It could've been to a point. It could have been a kind of quietism and even political reaction among some of the preachers. Most of the singers were very much engaged, and in fact, Marion Williams song takes for granted that her audience is not high class and doesn't have access to first class medical care. So I've always heard it as an implicit cry for civil rights and equality. It was the greatest influence in people like Little Richard and all of his sons like James Brown and Sam and Dave and Otis Redding. It's filled with musical impact as well.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: I'm talking with Anthony Heilbut about the gospel music collection, "How Sweet It Was." The great Mahalia Jackson is also part of this collection. But you have recordings of a much younger Mahalia than the woman we often hear. Where - how did you find them?

Mr. HEILBUT: I've always felt that Mahalia's best work was done before she became a star in Columbia, but none of that had been captured. Well, I was wrong. And among other things, in 1951, she appeared at the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts. And this is usually seen as the concert that exposed her to a more secular audience. Well it turned out that it had been recorded, and thanks to the generous men at the Institute for Jazz Studies, Dan Morgenstern and George Schuller, I was able to release it.

HANSEN: Do you have a favorite Mahalia song?

Mr. HEILBUT: One of my favorites is "These Are They," and I have the live performance of "These Are They" which I think holds its own. And again, that's something that I don't think anyone knew existed.

HANSEN: Let's hear a little of it then.

(Soundbite of "These Are They")

HANSEN: Man, you can still - I mean, you can hear that voice, but it's so interesting to hear it young.

Mr. HEILBUT: Yes.

HANSEN: Yeah. We can't have a conversation about gospel music, I think, without mentioning the late James Cleveland.

(Soundbite of "Deep Down in my Heart")

Mr. HEILBUT: He's the one who brought traditional gospel into the modern age, and the style that's now known generically as contemporary gospel. But he was fully a child of traditional. He was raised in a church where the minister of music was Thomas A. Dorsey and he began playing piano for Mahalia Jackson.

HANSEN: And he actually kind of changed the way that gospel was presented, too.

Mr. HEILBUT: Uh-huh.

HANSEN: Tell us about that.

Mr. HEILBUT: Well, previously, soloists would be accompanied by a group, female or male group or a quartet. Those are different styles. But Cleveland's dream was to shape a huge choir into a group as disciplined as a small unit and he succeeded.

HANSEN: So he's remembered sometimes more for his accomplishments as an arranger.

Mr. HEILBUT: Yes, and he also had a big influence on Aretha Franklin. You mentioned her earlier. And even though Aretha's particular inspirations were Clara Ward and Marion Williams and the Ward singers, et cetera, et cetera, James Cleveland started visiting her father, C.L. Franklin, and exposed her to, as she said, some heavy piano chords. And he expanded her harmonic horizons.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Anthony Heilbut is the gospel music producer responsible for the DVD and CD collection, "How Sweet It Was: The Sights and Sounds of Gospel's Golden Age." He joined us from New York. Thank you so much.

Mr. HEILBUT: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: And you can watch one of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's performances at our website, nprmusic.org.

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